The Holy Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper or even the Mass, is at the heart of our Sunday worship life at St. Mary’s as it is in most Episcopal parishes.
The Covid-19 outbreak has forced us to suspend our regular celebrations of the Eucharist, and that is leaving a lot of us – including me – feeling very pretty disconnected and disoriented.
Oh sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that is fine. But I miss that feeling of intimacy with Jesus in the Eucharist that is an important part – maybe the most important part – of my Christian faith. So, what do we do?
Well, when in doubt (it is 2020 after all), we can start with an internet search. It turns out that this isn’t the first time Christians have been cut off from regular celebrations of the Eucharist. And then as now, the faithful have turned to a practice known as “Spiritual Communion.” Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
Spiritual Communion is a Christian practice of desiring union with Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. It is used as a preparation for Holy Mass and by individuals who cannot receive Holy Communion.
This practice is well established in the Lutheran Churches, Anglican Communion, Methodist Churches, as well as in the Catholic Church, where it has been highly recommended by many saints, according to Pope John Paul II. He explained that practicing this constant desire for Jesus in the Eucharist is rooted in the ultimate perfection of Eucharistic communion, which is the ultimate goal of every human desire.
The practice of Spiritual Communion has been especially used by Christians in times of persecution, such as during the era of state atheism in the Eastern Bloc, as well as in times of plagues, such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic, when many Christians are unable to attend Mass, and therefore not able to receive the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day.
Turning to more reliable and respected authority than the interwebs, here are some thoughts from a few well-known liturgists and theologians. Here’s what Thomas Cranmer had to say in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549):
But yf any man eyther by reason of extremitie of sickenesse, or for lacke of warnyng geven in due tyme, to the curate, or by any other just impedimente, doe not receyne the sacramente of Christes bodye and bloud then the curate shall instruct hym, that yf he doe truely repent hym of his sinnes and stedfastly beleve that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the cosse for hym, and shed his bloud for his redempcion, earnestly remembring the benefites he hath therby, and geving hym hertie thankes therfore; he doeth eate and drynke spiritually the bodye and bloud of our savioure Christe, profitably to his soules helth, although he doe not receyve the sacrament with his mouth.
It’s a bit difficult to read, as the language is 16th century English, but here’s a similar paragraph in the 1979 Prayer Book:
If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. (BCP 457)
A nation-wide shut down due to a pandemic fits, I’m sure we’ll agree, with the words “by any other impediment” listed in the first Prayer Book. Jesus will not cut us off from his grace. If we truly desire him, he will come to us, even if we cannot receive the Sacraments he has instituted so that we may receive his grace. This is not a new idea. St Thomas Aquinas, writing nearly 800 years ago, said:
before receiving a sacrament, the reality of the sacrament can be had through the very desire of receiving the sacrament. Accordingly, before actual reception of this sacrament, a man can obtain salvation through the desire of receiving it, just as he can before Baptism through the desire of Baptism, as stated above (Summa, III.73.iii)
St. Thomas Aquinas defined a Spiritual Communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament [Communion] and lovingly embracing Him as if we had actually received Him.” In a Spiritual Communion, with a contrite heart, we ask Jesus to come to us in the same way he would if we were able to receive the consecrated bread and wine.
For a more contemporary look at Spiritual Communion, you might want to take a look at an excellent article by my very own liturgy professor, the Rev. Dr. Ruth A. Meyers, entitled, “Spiritual Communion In a Season of Social Distancing.”
One thing is clear: our liturgy assures us of the ability of God’s grace to reach us through every distance and disturbance. It asks us to take the eucharistic gifts “in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” In times like this, it is Jesus himself who inhabits our poor, fragile faith—so often wafer-thin—and feeds us with the True Bread that comes down from heaven.
Here’s one form of the Prayer for Spiritual Communion:
My Jesus, I believe that you are truly present
in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving;
as I proclaim your resurrection.
I love you above all things,
and long for you in my soul.
Since I cannot receive you in
the Sacrament of your Body and Blood,
come spiritually into my heart.
Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus,
and let me never be separated from you.
May I live in you, and you in me
in this life and in the life to come. Amen.
You do not do this with bread and wine at home. This is not home communion or virtual communion – a modern practice that is unknown to the Church. This prayer is said with a sense of sincere desire and longing to be spiritually present with Jesus.
Soon, we will be. Come, Lord Jesus.